In a one-room frame building of rough-hewn timber, one of Johnson County’s oldest institutions took form.
The Pleasant Hill Society, a small group of Methodists who had settled in White River Township, started meeting to worship in their new church on the banks of Pleasant Run Creek. Their time together provided a respite from the daily struggle of carving out life in the rugged Indiana countryside in the 1820s.
That rough cottage is gone. But from those beginnings, the church that would become Mt. Auburn United Methodist Church has grown into a cornerstone of the Johnson County community.
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“In 1826, this was frontier,” said Jeff Buck, senior pastor at Mt. Auburn. “We helped settle this area. We’ve been part of the fabric of this community for so long. That’s something to think about, the breadth and width of our time here.”
For nearly two centuries, Mt. Auburn United Methodist Church has been intertwined in nearly all facets of the Center Grove area. The church is deeply involved with the local schools, civic groups and people in western Johnson County.
This year marks the 190th anniversary of the church, giving longtime members and congregation leaders a chance to reflect on that history while preparing its future in a rapidly changing community.
“We are trying to create an experience, a worship service that gives people a chance to celebrate 190 years and look forward,” Buck said. “We’ve been a part of this county for a long time. It’s either helped given birth to or supported many, many churches in this area. It’s almost a mother church of many different congregations.”
Mt. Auburn is the second-oldest church still in operation in Johnson County, behind only First Presbyterian Church in Franklin. The church established the first kindergarten in the county, and had one of the first preschool programs as well.
The oldest Boy Scout troop in the county, Troop 245, was founded in 1958 by leaders of the church, and is still at work in the community.
Phil Howard was a member of the Scouts as a child, and has remained a leader of the group still. He recalls one of the organization’s primary fundraisers, which speaks to their resourcefulness as well as the area’s agricultural roots.
“The farmers who went here to this church would deliberately set their combines up a little bit, and after they cut their fields, the Scouts would glean the fields for the leftover corn,” Howard said. “That only came because the farmers here did that for us. That was the link of the farming community to Scouts and the church.”
Center Grove Little League was tied to the church as well, as members were founders, coaches and concession stand workers after it was established in the 1960s. When the Little League needed to be moved from Center Grove schools due to a construction project, the church made a parcel of land available for four fields and other facilities.
The fields were named for Harry McNabb, a longtime Mt. Auburn member who was instrumental in the founding of the league.
“We’re not an island. We’re part of the fabric of this community,” Buck said.
For months now, volunteers and church members have gathered in a room inside Mt. Auburn to parse through stacks of memorabilia. Old membership rosters from throughout the years and programs for momentous celebrations show how the church has stayed rooted in its past, as the familiar names of families who have attended the church for decades keep popping up.
Dozens and dozens of photographs, while not necessarily displaying the early years of the church, at least the show faces and traditions that have contributed to it over the years.
From a faded black-and-white photograph, the congregation of Mt. Auburn peers out from 133 years in the past. Members of the church — seven women, nine men — had gathered for a church photo. Their dour faces and simple yet tidy suits and dresses revealed the attitudes and dress of the 1880s.
They stood underneath an engraved message above the altar: “Welcome Children, For Such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“It’s been a blast finding this history,” said Jeff Beck, a Mt. Auburn member who has helped put together the history.
In preparing for the anniversary, a committee of members sifted through historical documents and photographs to learn more about its founding.
The church has existed in a number of different locations throughout its history, though always in the Center Grove area. When the first members met in 1826, it was near the current intersection of Fairview Road and State Road 135.
Nine years later, a group of Methodists broke off from this initial congregation to form the Mt. Auburn Society. One of the mysteries that stood out to them was why the church was named “Mt. Auburn.”
“It turns out that the original church was on the Auburn branch of Pleasant Creek. And it was built on a bluff, which is why it’s called, ‘Mt. Auburn,’ Buck said.
Other locations were established further south until reaching its current home on Stones Crossing Road.
“As this county has grown, so have we,” Buck said. “We used to be in a small country, red-brick church. Now we’re in a big suburban building.”
The anniversary has also provided time to look back at the trials the church has endured, and how the congregation has recovered each time.
The most trying incident came in 1986, when a tornado ripped off the church’s roof and severely damaged the entire structure. Close to 150 children and staff were in the building at the time of the storm, though miraculously, no one was seriously hurt.
“From the beginning, Mt. Auburn has been through a lot: fires, a tornado, terrible church floods,” Buck said. “But we’ve had really good stuff, like wild growth and starting new things. It really has been kind of a good reflection of life. Through it all, here were are.”
Pieces of the previous churches have survived over the years. Lumber from one of the old churches was used to create the foundation of the baptistry, which is still in the Mt. Auburn chapel.
Foundation stones from the 1830s, uncovered when the expansion of State Road 135 forced the old Mt. Auburn cemetery to be relocated, were used for a meditation garden.
A pile of stones brought by members after the 1986 tornado serves as a reminder of the hardship, echoing the biblical passage of “Upon this rock, I will build your church.”
“It’s been kind of exciting for people to see the depth of how the community worked together and how we’re all tied to this,” Buck said.
The anniversary year celebration will culminate in mid-September with a special worship service where the entire church community is invited together. Following the service, the congregation will pose for an all-church photograph, before enjoying a catered lunch together.
The photographs, videos and other displays will be part of a massive history exhibition being planned for an anniversary.
Stained-glass windows, the old bell and other items from the former church have been preserved and are hoped to displayed as well.
“That’s part of the tradition of not forgetting who we are,” Buck said.
The celebration will be a chance to reflect on the state of the church. From the small group that founded it in 1826, about 450 to 500 people regularly attend services each Sunday, as well as about 80 people at a fellowship in Trafalgar.
Where the White River Township had long been a rural, agricultural area, it is now increasingly suburban. Many transplants have come to the area, which will only increase as more and more development continues.
Heather Bonser, the director of communications for the church, moved in 1999 with her family from Ohio to the Center Grove area. The experience they had at Mt. Auburn instantly made them feel as if they were ingrained in the history of the church.
“It has a lot of deep roots and traditions, families who have raised their kids and grandkids here. But then you have a lot of people who moved into the area,” she said. “When I walked into this church, it becomes your family. It’s a community.”
Mount Auburn United Methodist Church
1826: A group of Methodists called the Pleasant Hill Society started worshiping on the banks of Pleasant Run Creek.
1835: Members split off from the Pleasant Hill Society to form the Mt. Auburn Society, meeting just north of Stones Crossing Road.
1836: The Mt. Auburn Society erected a small building dubbed the Old Mud Schoolhouse, which served the church and school until 1948.
1848: Construction started on a new church building. Though fire burned much of the lumber for the construction before it could be finished, the building was still used for worship.
1875: Sunday school started to be conducted year-round, and the church introduced its first organ.
1880: The Mt. Auburn Singing Society formed, with meetings every Saturday night.
1881: A massive repair and alteration project changed the look of the church. A partition separating men and women was removed, allowing for “promiscuous” seating.
1904: Growth forced the church to relocate to a new location on the south side of Stones Crossing Road. It would be the site of the church for the next 60 years.
1930: Classrooms, a dining room and kitchen were added to the church. During construction, worship was on the second floor of the Stones Crossing general store.
1946: After years of sharing a minister as part of a circuit of local Methodist churches, Mt. Auburn staffs its first full-time pastor.
1948: A two-story parsonage is built just west of the church.
1949: The church founds the Lord’s Acre to pay down its mortgage. On a 40-acre plot, farmers would pay to plant their crops, with the rent money going towards debt.
1963: Mt. Auburn kindergarten was established.
1964: Dr. Pauline Chambers, a local pediatrician and member of Mt. Auburn, became a medical missionary assigned to Republic of Zaire in Africa.
1966: The church purchased a 14 1/2-acre farm across from its existing building to start constructing a larger structure. A sanctuary and fellowship hall, classrooms, kitchen and offices are completed two years later.
1974: Mt. Auburn offered land to the west of the church to the Center Grove Little League, featuring four diamonds and other facilities. The fields are named in honor of Harry McNabb, a Mt. Auburn member who helped found the Little League.
1979: The church’s daycare operation opened up to five children.
1982: A new sanctuary and office complex was built.
1986: A tornado destroys much of the church, and services are temporarily relocated to Center Grove Middle School.
1987: The renovation and new construction after the tornado is completed, with changes to the fellowship hall, original sanctuary, offices and classrooms.
1991: First full-day kindergarten in the county started at Mt. Auburn.
2008: Expansion of State Road 135 requires an archaeological dig of the old Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The remains were relocated to a special area of GH Herrmann cemetery across the street.
2009: The O’Dell Family Life Center, where worship services are now held, opens.
190th Anniversary Celebration
When: 10 a.m. Sept. 18
Where: Mount Auburn United Methodist Church, 3100 W. Stones Crossing Road, Greenwood
What: A worship service, congregation photograph and picnic lunch. Lunch will cost $10 per person, and tickets will be available in the church fellowship hall starting Aug. 21. Cash or check only.
Information: Contact Julie Burns at (317) 535-8555 ext. 1313 or firstname.lastname@example.org